Though I like to think that most folks would be surprised to hear it, I am basically a walking ball of fear and anxiety. As a little girl, I was afraid of the dark, climbing trees, white vans, water, whatever lived in the closet, and pretty much everything else that wasn’t a book. I’ve never been afraid of books. Or dogs.
I was so afraid of disappointing someone that I would find myself unable to decide what to do — for any choice made was bound to disappoint someone. Or maybe that choice would place me in a position of public ridicule, and the last thing this four-eyed, chubby ubergeek needed was another source of humiliation.
From my tremendous fear spawned one of my few regrets in life, one of the moments I was most disappointed in myself, and one of my greatest lessons.
When I was fifteen-years-old, we county kids would ride buses from our homes to the elementary school we had attended until we finished eighth grade. From there, other buses would pick us up and shuttle us to the high school. During our wait for the second bus, we’d sit in the hallway of the elementary school, finishing homework or gossiping or playing “football” with those origami triangle footballs or doing whatever else kids did before cell phones.
I had a friend a couple of years older than I with whom I often spent that between time. We’ll call him “Thomas.” Thomas was a senior in the top of his class academically. I thought the world of him. He was well-respected by his teachers and was on a path for college and a good career. He was kind and funny and wise… and he slobbered all over himself constantly. I don’t know if he had had a birth injury or an accident as a small child or what. Rumors abounded, but I never asked him outright. Whatever it was had left him with spastic legs that caused him to walk on tiptoe and spastic arms that made his handwriting horrible. His speech was hard for most people to understand — especially when he was excited, and he had a never ending trickle of saliva from the side of his mouth at which he constantly wiped with his wrists. I genuinely enjoyed his company and considered him a valued friend.
It’s funny how certain parts of memories fade while others are so clear. I can still see the dust motes dancing in the light from the windows in the school doors, and I can see the brown and gold and turquoise stripes on the long sleeved shirt that Thomas was wearing. But I can’t remember how he asked me. I only remember that when he did ask me to go to prom with him, I said that I couldn’t. See, my dad was a stickler for rules, and one of his most hard and fast ones was that I couldn’t date until I was sixteen. I hated that rule (not that I had anyone even thinking about asking me on a date, mind you), but I latched onto it then like a life line.
Despite the downturn of Thomas’s chin and gaze when I told him my dad wouldn’t let me go on dates, I clung to that rule. I knew that my daddy would have made an exception in this case. Prom was different. Thomas was a good guy, and Daddy knew it. I wasn’t brave enough, though. I couldn’t do it. He lived with a perfect mind in what the world saw as an imperfect body every damn day, and I wasn’t brave enough to simply walk beside him for one evening.
I am more ashamed of this one thing than I am of any other thing I have ever done, and I was even as I did it. Despite the shame, I wasn’t brave enough to do anything about it. All I wanted was not to be seen because if I wasn’t seen, I couldn’t be ridiculed, and whomever Thomas took to prom was definitely going to be seen. A part of me even worried that she would be poked fun at for being Thomas’s date. I wasn’t brave enough to take that chance. I wasn’t brave enough to be his friend.
Of course, I can never go back and change that. I can’t take away that lie or his disappointment about it. I can’t restore that piece of self-respect I gave away that morning. As much as I would love to have been born fearless like my mother, I was not. Instead, I work to have the courage to stand for what I know is right. Instead, I have spent the rest of my life working to be brave enough. My hope is that from this bit of shame, I have grown, and not only I, but others, have reaped some benefit from the lesson it taught me.
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